What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not)
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I have keys.
When I first moved to the United States eleven months ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this bit of information.
I have keys.
I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.
I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them I am roaming loose on the street.
I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.
There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, call me a liar, and use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions for proof that I am doing something wrong.
Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.
Because there is no good reason why a woman should want to walk down the street just to walk, and expose herself to the questioning and predatory eyes of the neighbors and strange men.
I have keys to my front door, now, and I can open my front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.
In the first weeks when I was in the United States, I had so much fear and trembling at this freedom. I stayed in my apartment alone during my first two days in my new home, and when I did finally venture out, I checked to make sure my keys and ID and wallet were in my purse a thousand times. I wore long, flowing dresses and tied my hair up in a scarf even though it was August and very hot, even though I am an atheist who happens to find no personal value in modesty, even though I was not going out to meet anybody and knew not a single man in town, even though I tried to convince myself that in this land it wouldn’t matter if I was. I looked around every corner and checked over my shoulder in case my father was somehow watching, lurking.
It took a couple of months to stop expecting to see my father in a place I was going or coming from.
I soon got into the groove of my new life, my new graduate program, my teaching and department readings and events. I actually went to bars and stopped feeling guilty about it. I met people. I made friendships, some of them with men, none of them that I had to hide or lie about. I had sexual and romantic relationships.
And all this while, and even now, it sometimes feels like I am another person living a distant dream. A phantom woman. A woman who is only pretending to do things and be things that were never hers.
Even now, I sometimes cannot believe I am not hallucinating all of this from a dark room in Beirut.
Even now, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon and think, “I have my own place. My front door. MY key. And I can open the door and walk out into the street? Whenever I want? And I have MY papers and MY things and MY income? And I can just go somewhere. When I want? I can do this?”
It must be a sick joke.
And I can be at the library however late I want without panicking and fearing for my safety once I go home? Without knowing the neighbors will call me a whore? I can have people over when the sun is down and some of them can be men and we can play games and eat and drink and talk together and nobody will hurt me because of it?
And if I leave something someplace, I will come back and find it where I left it, unless I moved it myself.
And if it’s somewhere else, it is likely I moved it and forgot, and I will not start panicking, wondering where and why and how it was moved. I will not wonder: if whoever moved it saw it, did they see that other thing and did they do something with it and what do they know and what do they not know?
Even though I am hiding simple things. A tube of mascara. Some lacy underwear just to see what it feels like to wear that. A poem I really love from the persona of the devil. Something written by a Jewish author. A novel a boy in my class gifted to me. A box of tampons.
I can write things without hiding, coding, burying, and stashing them. I can make notes for myself in a notebook that are for my eyes only without fearing anybody reading them and demanding I reveal their meaning. I can have a password on my computer and to my email and facebook accounts that my parents do not know. I can save my contacts under their real names and not under various female pseudonyms.
I can keep my texts when I receive them and not instantly erase them. I can take my phone off silent mode and if it vibrates in my pocket I can take it out and answer it or turn it off without having a panic attack and without having to find a reasonable excuse to sneak out of the room without seeming flustered.
I can talk on the phone without somebody listening on the other end.
I can ignore a phonecall from my father when I am in class or teaching.
I can forget my phone in another room and not be asked where I am and with whom, and what I am doing because I missed a call from him.
If I spend more than five minutes in the bathroom, nobody will bang on my door demanding to know what I am doing in there.
I can shave my legs without being interrogated as to why I’d do such a thing when nobody ever sees them.
I can brush my hair and look in the mirror and try on clothes and try to feel like I can manipulate and move and enjoy my body, try to feel pretty, without being interrogated and asked who he is and how long I have been seeing him and what I am doing with him and whether I am a prostitute or pregnant.
I can slim down inadvertently or say I am not hungry for dinner without anybody demanding to know why and for whom I am trying to lose weight,.
I can shower without being asked why.
I can smile because I had a good day at work without being forced to explain why I am so happy.
I can cry at my empty, robotic life without being forced to explain why I am unhappy.
I can have facial expressions. Facial expressions.
I can have facial expressions.
I can have facial expressions.
It has been so hard to train myself to voice my feelings and opinions. To turn my face on.
I can sit however I want within my own house without being told that the position my legs are in is immodest.
I can stay up late doing work and reading philosophy or just derping around on teh interwebz without being forced to go to bed.
I can read and use the internet without surveillance and censorship.
I can watch a movie without turning it over for examination first.
I can sleep when I want, wake when I want, eat when I want or don’t want to.
I do not have to pretend to fast and pray.
I can prioritize my work over serving other people. Never again will I pull somebody’s socks off and bring them their food and drink on command.
I can get up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or get a drink of water without tiptoeing in terror.
I can lock my room door. I can lock the door of my own room.
Saying I want to be alone, that I need space, that I do not want to reveal personal information, that I do not choose to answer that question, that it is none of your damn business, that this is my body and I can position it on the furniture however I like, that I do not have to explain to you why I am smiling, that this is my time, that this is my work, this is my mind and I can use it to read and write what I please…
I can say these things now.
I never could before.
We never could, before. So many of us cannot, still.
This way of living–having to regulate and hide our personalities, our humanity–the tone of our voices, their volume and timbre, the manner in which we sit or stand or walk or speak, whether and when we can leave our homes, how and when we speak to people, what we do and do not read, can and cannot think or express–this way of living is the reality and default for so many of us.
We are suppressed beyond imagining.
Notice that the above does not even begin to touch upon the horrendous physical violence–abuse, marital rape (or just rape), child marriage (enslavement and rape), rape, whipping, stoning, genital mutilation–that happens to a not insignificant number of women who violate the above code of living.
Pretend that isn’t even a thing. Ignore the violence, for now. Set that aside.
And think, now, how even setting all of that horror aside, and pretending that it doesn’t come hand-in-hand with an obsession with the control of our bodies and our conduct and honor and shame, even setting it aside, this is how we have lived.
This is how my sister lives still, my mother, my cousins, my friends.
Think of this, and try to understand what freedom means to women like us. What it means to have choice. What it means to have true choice and not just a variety of empty options. because we too can walk into an iced cream shop and choose what flavor we want just like we could in America, and this is not freedom.
Chronic misunderstanding of institutional forms of oppression is blind to this distinction. The pervasive and fallacious argument that women from Muslim families and/or who live in in Muslim-majority countries with laws on the books allowing them to do everything I have cited as forbidden, that allow them to have technically as many options as men, or as women in the West, claiming that nobody forces them to do anything absolutely–this is akin to saying that African American kids growing up in inner city slums have the same opportunities as straight white males.
Yes, many of us can go to school, can work, can earn and spend our own money. But what we study or work at, and how and why and when and where and with whom and wearing what–all of this is controlled. If we try to do otherwise, there are institutional mechanisms in place–sectarian politics, social norms and customs ignored by law, people in positions of influence at our workplaces and schools and police stations and government–that can destroy us. That this is a common and chronic condition wherever Muslims live and socialize is true–that it also occurs in other third world societies and countries where Muslims do not live and socialize makes this no less of an actuality in places where Muslim thought and custom constitute and contribute to society and politics.
We have freedoms that are not freedoms, and we can continue to go to school and go to work and be empty robots all the while. And if we gave up and stayed at home, we would be giving up our education and our careers, it is true, as limited as those things are, but we would also be giving up the chronic hopelessness and self-defeat and empty confusion of striving, striving, striving to be fulfilled when we are effectively mannequins.
It is like three quarters of our limbs and muscles are controlled by strings, and the quarter we have some ability to move keep trying to overcompensate and convince us we are real people.
Giving up is so, so tempting.
But sometimes, sometimes, we escape.
And after we escape, or after things change for us?
We will spend some time adjusting. We will be able to grasp, eventually, what it is like to have freedoms.
Some days we will even take them for granted, and if we realize we’ve done so, we will feel a sort of confused resentment at ourselves for being such spoiled first-world brats and then guilt for feeling that having human rights means we are spoiled because rights should be just that–granted.
Some days, however, we’ll be very aware of our rights. The ridiculous pervasiveness of choice around us will paralyze and confuse us, and we will feel empty, incomplete.
I have had a panic attack choosing pizza toppings when my partner would not take ‘whatever you want’ as an answer for the umpteenth consecutive time.
I have become so used to choosing things according to a quick assessment of what other people want, prefer, or require, so that they will be happy and content and thus my life around them will be easier, so that they will not hurt me or destroy me–so used to choosing what will make others happy– I have become so used to that that I am deeply depressed trying to make anything meaningful for myself.
I do not know how to become invested in my work and my art, because my life was never more than a big empty chamber of apathetic nothingness at best, and horrible torture at worst.
And I am afraid of becoming capable of being free. I am afraid of transcending my ability to let my trauma and unhappiness consume me. I am afraid that succeeding in pulling together that broken part of me that does not know how to choose or care or be, how to quit compulsively faking emotions and detaching–I am afraid of becoming free because I am afraid of being no longer angry, no longer cognizant of this incredible injustice, being blind to what it means to not to be free.
I am afraid of being happy because it might mean I accept and am blind to my former chains.
I am afraid of forgetting what it means to be free.
I am afraid that once I have freedom, I will no longer understand what freedom is worth and why it is important.
This is my reminder.
Disclaimer: This is clearly not meant to be reflective of the experiences of all or even necessarily most women who are Muslim or have been raised in Muslim-majority countries or households. This is meant to further understanding of what it is in fact like for many women. This particular blog post is also not making any argument as to how, why, or whether Islam as a religion, doctrine, or ideology in any or all of its forms contributes to the oppression described in this post. That goes beyond the scope of this piece, but I will address it in future pieces.
PS: I can with confidence say, however, that the above is very reflective of my friend Reem Abdel-Razek‘s life and experiences. If you support freedom and have the willingness and the means, please help her stay in the United States. Please contribute to her campaign and support the right to political asylum. For reasons why you should support her, read my blog post on the topic here.